What is classical conditioning and how is it relevant to phobias in humans

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Last updated: April 12, 2019

This essay will demonstrate a basic learning process known as classical conditioning along with the way it is associated with phobias in humans. Ivan Pavlov’s initial discovery of classical conditioning and his contribution to the understanding of this phenomenon will be outlined. Moreover, the definition and the basic principles of classical conditioning will be stated next to its significance in daily behaviour. Furthermore, different types of phobias as well as their acquisition through classical conditioning will also be presented.Finally, a number of techniques which could be applied in treating phobias will also be introduced. According to Carlson, Martin and Buskist (2004), people acquire much of their daily behaviour throughout classical conditioning. For instance, when people hear a song they used to listen to when they were with loved ones they are likely to experience feelings of nostalgia. As a general rule, classical conditioning entails learning about the conditions that forecast that an important event will take place, e.

. , when a balloon is being inflated in front of a person who has never seen one before then he/she will observe the expanding balloon but will not demonstrate any other reaction. When the balloon explodes the noise and the blast of air will cause a protective shock reaction (suddenly heaving his/her shoulders and moving his/her arms towards his/her body). Thus, a bursting balloon is an important stimulus which could result in an unlearned protective behaviour.After repeating the experience some times the person will learn to act protectively prior to the balloon in fact bursting.

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In effect two stimuli have become associated with each other. A prior neutral stimulus (the over inflated balloon) followed by a significant stimulus (explosion while the balloon bursts) can now set off the protective reaction by itself. In practice the protective reaction has been classically conditioned to the view of a highly inflated balloon (Carlson et al. , 2004).Thus, classical conditioning can be defined as a learning process in which a formerly neutral stimulus will become associated with a different stimulus in the course of repetitive pairing with that stimulus (Atkinson and Atkinson, Smith, Bem and Hoeksema, 2000). Moreover, classical conditioning accomplishes two important functions.

Firstly, the skill, for an organism, of learning to identify stimuli that forecast the occurrence of an important event permits the learner to make the proper response more rapidly and even more successfully.For example, when an animal sees an enemy its heart rate and the flow of blood to its muscles increase, it takes a protective and threatening posture and hormones are released which prepare it for combat or flight. Secondly, through classical conditioning previously unimportant stimuli may acquire some of the properties of the significant stimuli with which they have been related and so alter behaviour: people react differently in the view of a pile of money and of a pile of papers because money has been related with attractive goods, e. g. cars (Carlson et al.

, 2004).The research on classical conditioning began while Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, was studying digestion. Pavlov was investigating the neural control of different digestive reflexes, and his laboratory research was centred on the emission of saliva in dogs. In the course of this investigation, Pavlov noticed dogs that had been in the laboratory for some time would salivate not only at the touch and taste of meat in the mouth but at the simple sight of the meat to the view of the dish in which the food was normally positioned and also to the sight of the researcher who usually brought the food.After Pavlov noticed this case of associative learning, he decided to see if dogs could be taught to link food with other things, such as lights, tones and bells (Pavlov, 1927, in Gleitman, Fridlund and Reisberg, 1999). In Pavlov’s experiment, a researcher connected a tube to the dog’s salivary gland to measure salivary flow. Then a meat powder was presented automatically in a pan near which the dog was initially positioned. After that a researcher turned on a light in a window in front of the dog.

After a few seconds, meat powder was presented in the pan and the light turned off. The dog started to salivate and the recording apparatus registered this salivation. Pavlov suggested that this salivation is an unconditioned response (UR), while the meat powder is an unconditioned stimulus (US), since both UR/US are reflexes which are essentially inborn and no learning is involved. After this process was repeated a number of times, the dog would begin to salivate in response to the light alone.This salivation is a conditioned response (CR) with the light being a conditioned stimulus (CS) and CS/CR, according to Pavlov, are reflexes which could be acquired through learning.

Thus, although the light was initially a stimulus that could not have triggered a response, after conditioning the dog had been taught to link the light with food and to react to it with salivation. These diverse relationships among US/UR and CS/CR represented the basis of the learning process of classical conditioning (Pavlov, 1929, in Atkinson et al. , 2000).In addition, classical conditioning involves a number of major phenomena, such as acquisition, extinction, spontaneous recovery, stimulus generalization and discrimination (Atkinson et al. , 2000). Acquisition is the learning period in which the CS progressively increases in strength and rate of recurrence. Often a single pairing of the CS with the US is normally inadequate for learning to occur.

Only after repetitive pairings does conditional responding emerge. Furthermore, there are two factors that influence the strength of the CR.Intensity of the US is one, for it can determine how fast the CR will be acquired, e/. g.

, classical conditioning of a salivary response in dogs takes place faster if the dogs are offered larger amounts of food (Wagner et al. , 1964, in Carlson et al. , 2004). The second factor affecting the acquisition of the CR is the timing (or response latency) of the CS and US. According to Pavlov (1929, in Carlson et al.

, 2004), classical conditioning could take place more quickly when the CS occurs rapidly prior to US and both of them end at the same moment. However, when the US (e. g. meat powder) is no longer followed by the CS (light) a number of times, then the CR (salivation) gradually will be eliminated for the CS is presented alone. This process, called extinction, occurs only when the CS occurs but the US does not. That is, the dog, for instance, must learn that the CS no longer forecasts the happening of the US. Nevertheless, after successful extinction, the CR may not disappear from the subject behaviour permanently but re-emerge time and again after the dog is positioned in the experimental condition again. This CR reoccurring after a ‘break period’ is known as spontaneous recovery.

Additionally, the dog will acquire the CR faster than it did in the initial period of classical conditioning, after the presentation of both the CS and CR together (Pavlov, 1929, in Gleitman et al. , 1999). Generalization is another phenomenon involved in classical conditioning. When a CR is formed by a specific CS, then the same response can be also elicited when a related CS is presented. For example, a dog that has learned to salivate upon hearing a bell would also salivate when it hears a bell with a different pitch or even when it hears a buzzer.

Additionally, a process supplementary to generalization is discrimination. While generalization is a response to similarities, discrimination is a response to differences. For example, when a child has learned to associate playfulness with his/her dog, the child may initially approach all dogs and expect playfulness.

Later, if a threatening dog scares the child, then, through discrimination, it will expect playfulness only from dogs like his/hers (Atkinson et al. , 2000).Thus, classical conditioning could also play a role in the development of positive or negative emotions, and these emotions may elicit certain reactions which in turn may influence daily behaviour. Examples of negative emotional reactions that are produced through classical conditioning, in animals and humans, are fears: for example, a rat positioned in a sheltered section in which it receives electrical shocks – by electrifying the floor – at intervals and a tone sounding shortly before the shock occurs.

After continual pairings of the tone (CS) with the shock (US), the tone, presented by itself, will elicit behaviour and bodily changes (e. g. increased heart rate) that indicate fear in the rat. Thus, the rat has been conditioned to fear every time it is exposed to what was previously a neutral stimulus (Seligman, 1975, in Atkinson et al.

, 2000). A famous study of conditioning fear in a human being was performed by Watson and Rayner (1920, in Zimbardo, McDermott, Jansz and Metaal, 1995) with an infant named Albert.Watson and Rayner taught Albert to be afraid of a number of stimuli that he initially liked (furry objects, such as a white rat, a rabbit and even a Father Christmas mask) by pairing it with an aversive US (they produced a loud noise just behind him).

In effect, a number of psychologists have suggested that these fears could be easily understood in terms of classical conditioning, especially fears that could become irrational, which are known as phobias.Phobias (in humans) are unreasonable fears of particular objects or situations, such as animals, airplanes or enclosed spaces. In addition, a phobic person is someone who responds with extreme fear to a stimulus or circumstances that most people do not regard as particularly hazardous, and this fear interferes with his/her judgement, causing significant distress and consequently having a great negative impact on his/her life (Zimbardo et al.

, 1995).Phobic disorders are divided into three broad types: simple phobia, which is a fear of specific objects, animals or situations; social phobia, in which the phobic person feels excessive insecurity in social circumstances and is afraid of embarrassing him/herself; and agoraphobia, in which the person is afraid of entering unfamiliar settings, such as open spaces, crowds or travelling, and in general places from which they think that in case of a stressful incident escape or receiving help might be difficult or even impossible.Furthermore, a person with a phobia has apparently been exposed earlier in his life to the now feared object or situation in concurrence with a stimulus which brought forth fear, pain or discomfort. For example, if a person is trapped in a hot, crowded elevator with a group of other frightened passengers, this could lead to fear of elevators and might produce a completely developed phobia for this person (Carlson et al. , 2004).

Classical conditioning, however, can also occur without any straight experience with the CS and US.A child can still develop a snake phobia without previously having been attacked or threatened by one just by observing signs of fears in his/her parents who have a snake phobia. Moreover, people can develop phobias simply by hearing stories that describe a distressing experience. The unreal story that a person pictures in his/her imagination while he/she hears the story (US) can offer imaginary stimuli (CS) that may elicit real emotional CRs (Carlson et al.

, 2004).The treatment of phobias includes cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), systematic desensitisation, modelling and sometimes antidepressants or anxiolytic drugs – the last is used especially in treating social phobia e. g. , performance anxiety in actors. CBT generally involves gradual, prolonged exposure to circumstances or objects that evoke fear and simultaneously helping the person to identify and overcome negative thoughts about that fear (Carson, Butcher and Mineka, 2000).

Modelling involves a therapist’s step-by-step demonstration of the phobic object or animal and simultaneously encouragement of the gradual participation by the phobic person (Bandura, 1971, in Carlson et al. , 2004). In conclusion, classical conditioning can be defined as a learning process in which a formerly neutral stimulus becomes associated with a different stimulus in the course of repeated pairing with that stimulus. In addition, it involves a number of learning principles such as acquisition, extinction, spontaneous recovery, stimulus generalization and discrimination.

The discovery of classical conditioning by Pavlov is important, because it revealed the way in which associative learning can influence everyday behaviour. Phobias are irrational fears that interfere with a person’s life and they are acquired primarily through classical conditioning. There are three categories of phobias (simple, social and agoraphobia) and they can be treated with several techniques such as modelling, CBT, and medication.

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